Analysis

Clash on ultra-Orthodox Draft Brings Israeli Elections Closer

The ultra-Orthodox threaten to quit the coalition if the bill passes as is; the military won't agree to exempt every yeshiva student. Elections seem to be right around the corner

Ultra-Orthodox men protesting outside the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
Eyal Warshavsky/AP

On Sunday, a day before the new bill on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students came up for its first Knesset vote, Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid embarked on a media blitz to explain one of the most puzzling decisions any politician has made recently.

His web of justifications reinforced what everyone already knew – Lapid is offsides. In politics, there’s a basic rule: Explanations are for people who have made mistakes. Since Lapid is the type who never admits mistakes, he has chosen the worse option – digging in, ignoring the facts, pretending that only he understands the real picture and that there’s some kind of hidden truth apparent to him alone.

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He’s trying to present himself as a man of principle who makes decisions based on substance — rather than a willfully irritating politician. He is the man who forged “an alliance of brothers” with an extreme right-wing party in 2013 and dragged it into the Netanyahu government with him. He is the man who shifted 1,000 times from left to right, from opposing the ultra-Orthodox to appeasing them, from supporting human rights groups to smearing them. His considerations are always only political and electoral.

Avi Gabbay, chairman of the Labor Party and the Zionist Union joint ticket, who on Monday restored the word “betray” to the political lexicon by calling Lapid’s position “a betrayal of his voters” also made a typical flip-flop of his own. In the past, he has spoken apathetically about drafting the ultra-Orthodox. Now that he’s spotted an opportunity to recapture a few Knesset seats that had strayed to Yesh Atid, he’s suddenly become a ravenous predator of the ultra-Orthodox.

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But Lapid is more interesting in this regard. The question of what’s happening to him has preoccupied the political world in recent days. If there’s one issue of principle that is the reason for Yesh Atid’s existence and that of its founder, one issue more precious to them than any other, it’s drafting the ultra-Orthodox.

There’s no dispute that the Defense Ministry’s plan is generous to the ultra-Orthodox community. Aside from Agudat Yisrael, which capitulated to the extremist policy dictated by its rabbinic leader, all the other ultra-Orthodox parties admit this. MK Moshe Gafni of Degel Hatorah, which along with Adudat Yisrael makes up the United Torah Judaism faction, even termed the proposal “all right.”

Cartoon depicting ultra-Orthodox enlisting into the Israeli army
Amos Biderman

That statement alone should have been enough to send Lapid to the barricades. Instead, he’s sticking to his guns, insisting that the current bill is a carbon copy of his party’s earlier conscription law, and that the party should therefore support it.

Because Lapid is his party’s enlightened dictator, he has imposed his will on its other 10 Knesset members. Anyone who dares express a different opinion will find himself collecting unemployment in 2019. Instead, they mumble into their pillows at night. In this regard, Lapid is no different than the rabbi who dictates decisions at Agudat Yisrael.

That party’s chairman, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, sounded miserable in the Knesset on Monday when he announced that Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages had decreed that the party must quit the government coalition if the bill passes as is. It’s clear that changes will be made in committee, but the question is which changes.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the bill’s official sponsor, announced that any changes will require the consent of both the army’s chief of staff and his ministry’s legal advisers, who approved the current version. It’s hard to believe the gap between these positions can be bridged. Litzman wants a complete exemption for every yeshiva student who doesn’t feel like enlisting and the abolition of all penalties for not serving. As far as he’s concerned, an army representative (out of uniform) should come to the ultra-Orthodox strongholds of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood and grant an exemption to every potential draftee, and then get lost. But Lieberman can’t agree to empty the bill, which is already minimalist and accommodating, of all content.

If that’s the case, we’re heading for a crisis, possibly in less than three weeks, during the final week of the Knesset’s summer session. On July 22, the MKs leave for their summer recess. They’ll return in early October. And then, most likely, the Knesset will be dissolved and elections called for early next year.